Up Close with Cabo’s Gentle Giants
Photographer Max Seigal captures one of the world’s greatest natural spectacles, right off the coast of Cabo.
Boulder, Colorado-based photographer Max Seigal has been snapping pictures since he was 11 years old. Now 30, he’s spent the last five years making his passion—nature photography—his profession. Seigal spends around nine months of the year on the road, camera in tow, in pursuit of the perfect shot—be it paragliding from the snowy peaks of Nepal, cruising the Mekong, hiking the Swiss Alps or motorcycling through Ireland.
This February, he headed to Mexico as lead photographer with National Geographic Expeditions, spending two weeks at sea capturing one of nature’s most spectacular shows: the whale season off the coast of Baja California. Each year, upwards of 20,000 gray whales travel from the cold waters of Alaska to the balmy, protected coves off Baja, where they mate and give birth to their calves. At more than 5,000 miles, it’s the longest migration of any mammal on the planet, and while the sheer number of whales means it’s all but guaranteed you’ll see them, it’s never clear where. “When and where the whale will pop up is a mystery,” says Seigal, and even after one has surfaced, its next moves are unknown. “Sometimes they do a 180 underwater and reemerge behind you. It’s always exciting to see where they go!”
“The moment I touched the baby whale, I felt a deep connection to it.”
On this recent trip, Seigal glimpsed dozens of the massive creatures, taking photographs and sharing some of the best with his followers on Instagram (@maxwilderness). “Most of the time, all you see is a sliver of the animal popping out of the water as it surfaces to breathe. But sometimes, they’ll breach and do acrobatic tricks in the air,” he says. “Scientists still don’t know exactly why they do this. We know they are very intelligent animals, so I like to think they’re being playful and showing off.”
Often, the whales wind up astonishingly close to the small zodiac boats—called pangas in Mexico—filled with passengers. During the season, it’s common for mothers and their newborns to come to the surface right next to their onlookers—close enough to touch and make eye contact. The proximity doesn’t seem to be accidental: The massive mammals appear to be just as curious about their land-lubbing fans as we are with them. One day, Seigal witnessed a gray whale calf approach his panga and stick its head out of the water so the passengers could pet it. “The feeling wasn’t what I’d expected,” Seigal recalls. “It’s soft and squishy, kind of like a water balloon. The moment I touched the baby whale, I felt a deep connection to it.”
That encounter, along with the many others from his two-week stint at sea, reminded Seigal just how extraordinary whales are. “Watching an animal that weighs 40 tons emerge just beside you is a magical experience. With the flap of a tail it could easily flip your boat, and yet they remain so gentle with us.”
Here, he shares a few memorable moments from his journey with those gentle giants.